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Could Leicester happen in the AFL?

On the back of Leicester City’s fairytale rise to the Premier League title in England, the first in their 132-year history and one of the  most unexpected in world sport, it reminded us of the AFL’s own Cinderella stories.

Three of the more remarkable modern-day successes are the 1993 ‘Baby-Bombers’, Malcolm Blight’s 1997 Adelaide Crows and Geelong’s dynasty-beginning team of 2007 – all premierships won by teams coming from outside the top eight the previous season.

If anything the Leicester story and our own AFL versions have taught us, it’s that anything is possible in the sporting realm. Perhaps this really could be the year the Bulldogs end their drought, or the Giants go from having never played a final to saluting in the big one.

Josh Hunt – Geelong (2007)

We played some pretty good footy and made the finals in the two previous years but ‘06 was the year where we got a little bit ahead of ourselves or that we were better than what we were.

Missing the finals in ’06 was a bit of wake-up call and the powers that be implemented a program that changed the dynamics of the playing group and we had some pretty serious conversations and told some home truths that hadn’t been told before, which was a turning point for the footy club.

That enabled a real sense of ownership around the club and everyone started pulling in the one direction – 2006 became our epiphany.

I would’ve thought that every year we expected to make finals and coming into 2007 our aim was to play finals if we could play our best footy.

It felt like everyone was smarting from the previous year and really wanted to make amends for what was, for lack of a better description, a lost year. But for us it became the loss we kind of had to have and ended up galvanising the group to make the club what it was then and I believe still is today.

We didn’t have the greatest start to the year either. I think we lost three of our first five games but I don’t think there was one turning point during a game or anything like that. It was seeing the guys have those conversations and tell each other things we never told each other before because on the field and training track, you don’t have the time to discuss these things.

The majority of the guys took it really well and realised it wasn’t a personal shot and was done for the betterment of the players and the team as well.

The group of leaders we had at the time were all different types of characters but all came together and were fiercely competitive which is what you want in a leadership group.

Ben Hart – Adelaide (1997)

AFL 1997 Grand Final - St Kilda v Adelaide

Clearly we had a new coach come in – Malcolm Blight joined as senior coach – and we had a few senior players exiting the system at the end of 1996. So it felt like a younger group, although those young guys had been at the club for a little while, they had to pick up the slack a little bit more.

Mark Bickley was appointed captain and myself and a few others were getting a little bit older then, so there was a feel of ‘let’s give it the best we can and make something happen’ considering we were the ones who had to carry the can.

Our expectations were high coming into 1997, we wanted to make finals and start thinking about going further if we get there. We had real belief in Malcolm Blight coming in and the game style he was trying to implement. Our confidence, while it didn’t click straight away, grew as the year wore on and we just wanted to give ourselves a chance.

I’m not sure how many injuries we had that year but we had a pretty stable group that played a lot together and we managed to get on a roll and make the top eight for September.

We were going OK by the mid-way through the season and then got onto a bit of a roll where we beat some quality sides and the thought of ‘we’re good enough here’ started to emerge.

We had a great belief in our fitness during that period too – Neil Craig was our fitness coach at the time. We probably didn’t play our best footy until we hit the finals, so that first finals win was a major one for our confidence.

Joe Misiti – Essendon (1993)

AFL 1999 4th Qualifying Final - Essendon v Sydney

I was only 17 and played the last two games of 1992 in the seniors, so I was still pretty wide-eyes and bushy tailed the following season.

The big thing was that ‘Sheeds’ threw all the young kids in at the back end of 1992 and gave them a sniff of AFL footy. He was smart enough to get a good core group of senior players together with a group of young kids so we managed to get something together that no one even dreamed of.

We had no expectations and that might’ve been the beauty of it. As young blokes, we just all wanted to get in and play some senior footy and have some fun – we were 18 and 19-year-old kids playing footy – so we wanted to get in there and see what happens. That’s when we started winning a few games and it got exciting and we realised we could compete with some good sides.

By the time Round 6 came around, we had only won one game and had a draw with Carlton, but there was a game against Geelong where Ablett kicked 14 goals and Paul Salmon kicked 10 and we ended up beating them after they had made the Grand Final the year before, so that’s when the belief kicked in that we could compete.

You just got to believe. I’m coaching kids at the moment and all I tell them is give me 100 per cent effort and let’s see where it takes us because you just don’t know how things could click.

For us it clicked, we got lucky with injuries and had a great squad of players.

Someone like the Giants or the Bulldogs could definitely win it this year, they probably have a bit more talent than what we had, but once you believe that’s the moment when things can change.